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''Preacher'' is the latest comic book hit

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These are tricky times for the comic-book industry. Kids don’t invest in comics like they used to, distracted as they are by videogames and movies that feature comic-book heroes. At the same time, baby boomers demand comics with more complicated characters than those offered for children.

How to address this splintered crowd? Break some rules, push some boundaries, go further than you’ve ever gone before. One of the riskiest examples — and a raging commercial success — is DC Comics’ Preacher, written by Irishman Garth Ennis, 27.

Preacher ain’t no Batman: He’s Jesse Custer, a lapsed minister who now drinks too much and consorts with people of the naughtiest sort. Drawn with knowingly garish, TV-movie realism by artist Steve Dillon, Preacher features more blood and blasphemy than any mainstream comic in memory. ”It’s too extreme for many people,” says Ennis from his Belfast home. ”We can get away with a lot because it’s selling well, but we’re constantly having to justify the violence, the sexual context, and the use of Christian icons.”

Like many of the new generation of comics writers, Ennis is ambivalent about his genre. ”There are certainly a lot of cliched superhero comics out there — I mean, Green Lantern will always be a complete arsehole in a funny green suit to me. But there’s also a fair amount of good work sneaking in. It helps that the big companies like DC, Marvel, and Image no longer have a clear idea who their audience is.”

Based on the mail Preacher gets, Ennis figures his readers range from 17 into their 20s. ”And there’s a good sprinkling of the mentally deranged, without whom we in comics would all be lost.” All of them will be pleased to know Ennis has five years of story lines mapped out. ”It’s a grand story,” says Ennis, who’s been asked about turning Preacher into a movie. ”One thing comics have over the movies is that the writer is the central creator, not just a hired hand. No one will ever tell Preacher what to do except me,” Ennis pauses, ”and the Lord.”

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